I watched Ocean’s Thirteen last night, and it got me thinking. Why is it that I like watching people break the law so much in these movies? The Ocean series, The Sting, The Italian Job (and the original), The Thomas Crown Affair (and the original), Catch Me If You Can . . . it’s a genre I really like, and it’s remarkable how quickly I start rooting for the protagonists, even though they all end up doing things that I find morally objectionable. And when you look at the movies for a moment, you figure out why. In each case, the protagonists are essentially good people who are just doing things to Fight the System. Ocean doesn’t steal from little old grannies–he steals from big wig casino owners. And not just casino owners–morally reprehensible casino owners. And in the case of the first film, he’s not just stealing for profit, he’s stealing to win back the heart of the woman he loves. In the Sting, Redford is portrayed at first as a two-bit con artist who doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot of harm. But then his partner is killed, which justifies the grand theft that ensues.
What do I learn from this? Well, I learn that protagonists are appealing not just by their characteristics, but also by their conflicts. Let’s look at it from the reverse. Hannibal Lecter is refined and cultured, by all appearances a model of society. He just happens to kill people and eat their organs, and for that, he becomes one of the most cited examples of terrible villains in recent film history. (Well, that and ripping off a guy’s face and using it as a mask, but let’s not quibble here.) What I mean is that you can have a very nice protagonist, but if that protagonist is doing the most evil in the book, then people won’t like him or her. But if you have them doing evil–but not as much evil as someone else in the plot–you can still have your audience like them.
An example where this fell apart for me is in the remake of Stallone remake of Get Carter. It’s a movie where Stallone goes through doing reprehensible things, one after another, that are easily as reprehensible as the actions the “villains” did to him, with the only difference that the villains did them first. The same is true of Mel Gibson’s Payback, a movie I could never really get into, just because I couldn’t quite bring myself to root for the protagonist.
I remember talking with Brandon Sanderson when he was just starting the Mistborn series. He wanted to write a fantasy book that was fun in the same vein as heist movies were fun. So he had his protagonists be fighting against an evil empire and an immortal dictator. It works–his series is fantastic.
Can anyone think of other examples of this? Or better yet, of examples where this isn’t the case? Have you seen or read anything that has a protagonist who is truly evil or wicked or whatever, yet you still really rooted for him or her anyway? Maybe I’m just unique in this–I’d like to hear what other people have to say.